I make adventure

I Saw a Unicorn and It was Called Renga

In Game Design, Review on 10 • 9 • 12 at 9:21 pm

I saw a unicorn last Saturday night at Indiecade. Something I previously didn’t think possible. A collaborative multiplayer game for 100 players. One in which each player felt agency. A game that captivated an audience of players and spectators for 60 very full minutes. I saw Renga.

I’m not the only one who found Renga, by UK-based wallFour, to be a transformative experience. Game designer Chelsea Howe wrote a wonderfully evocative post about her Renga encounter.

After describing the final battle, she closes with the thought:

We hear about mob mentality and think humans fall apart and disintegrate in large numbers. We think they become thoughtless, angry, stupid. But here, without a leader, without any chance to form strategy, without any plan or pretense, over a hundred people not only worked together, but got better. The same way an individual’s skill improved, this collective’s ability visibly, markedly increased over time. It wasn’t chaos, it wasn’t stupid, it wasn’t random. It was beautiful.

Renga absolutely changed and challenged what I understood could be done with multiplayer collaborative games. Go read all of Chelsea’s description for a taste of the exhilaration of the live experience.

Instead of doing the writerly thing that Chelsea does and end on a high inspirational note, I’m going to do the much more prosaic – possibly foolish – thing and try to tease out what makes Renga work.

1) Virtually no latency. The use of laser pointers as the input device meant that you could distinguish your individual movements easily because of the speed-of-light response time. Knowing with certainty which little red point of light represents your input is critical to establishing a feeling of agency. You know for sure that without your little red do on that vertex, the foe would not have been vanquished.

2) Heads-up input. The lasers also provide and intuitive means of entirely heads-up input. This means that your view is always the same as that of your fellow players. Everyone shares the same view of the same screen.

3) Same tools. Many successful collaborative games work because players are given different tools. In these games, we need each other in order to succeed because you must depend on me to do the things that you cannot. This works in small team-play games because it makes everyone – regardless of skill level – important and necessary. But it has drawbacks, especially as the number of collaborative players climbs. Either you become one of many players with your special skill – making your team rely less on you as an individual – or you have an increasingly specific skill set that makes you critically important, but only for an increasingly small set of tasks. In Renga, my laser pointer does the same thing as your laser pointer. That means that we can both choose – and choose again – how we want to contribute to the overall success of the mission.

4) Multiple simultaneous tasks. Other collaborative games for large groups that follow #3 and give everyone the same tools, also often ask each member of the group to contribute by performing the same action. How many times have you seen calls to tweet with a hashtag in order to uncover an image? This type of call to action emphasizes how small and insignificant my contribution is. I’m just one of many people using the same hashtag. Renga requires the opposite. It presents multiple challenges at the same time: this enemy needs five players to defeat, this one needs thirty, and some players need to tend to the ship. The group of 100 can make progress without relying on all 100 players to agree. In fact it’s vital that each player act as an individual and attend to whatever they see as the most pressing task.

These are just the things that stood out to me in terms of how Renga manages to pull off such an impressive feat. Each one, in its own way is an expression of player agency in the context of a large group with a shared goal. Renga is absolutely a game that is more than the sum of it’s parts. To attribute it’s success to the above features alone would be doing it a disservice. It was a truly inspiring achievement of game design.